Living Black in Bloomington-Normal: Dr. Cedric Williams | WGLT

Living Black in Bloomington-Normal: Dr. Cedric Williams

Jul 23, 2020

Bloomington native and now Normal resident Dr. Cedric Williams is the founder and CEO of the Twin Cities based Legacy Consulting & Research Group. Williams is a psychologist who has served in the United States Army and Reserve Components for over 18 years, including time serving in Iraq.

He spoke with Jon Norton for the WGLT series Living Black in Bloomington-NormalContact us if you'd like to be featured in the series.

WGLT: Can you give us an idea of what it was like for you growing up in Bloomington-Normal, in the context of race?

This story was published as part of WGLT's limited series Living Black In Bloomington-Normal. Find more at WGLT.org/LivingBlack.

Dr. Cedric Williams: Yeah, I think that it was interesting. My parents were from the south side of Chicago. And then in 1980, they decided to move to Bloomington-Normal. The main reason that they came here was for … I think that there was some sort of small Bible college. My brother and I were born shortly after … 1983 and 1984. I think that growing up, we had a very keen awareness of being “other,” you know, because it was very different. We were one of the only Black families in this area at the time, of course. There were other Black families that were here, but you think about going out to eat, restaurants, school … it always felt like you were … well we were minorities, but you also felt like that, right? And I think that that feeling of feeling “other” … feeling different is something that is very unique to Bloomington-Normal in some ways.

In what way is it unique to Bloomington-Normal?

I would say that when I've lived in even Tulsa, Oklahoma, or I've lived in Texas … I've lived in Los Angeles … where you have larger communities, it feels like everybody has a lot of … there's a lot of ethnic and racial diversity in those areas. So, I think that in Bloomington-Normal, even though there is racial and ethnic diversity, it's not as much as it's a predominantly white area. And so I think that being a person of color in a predominantly white area, you feel that. And that is something that is a lived experience. It's unique to my experience, I wouldn't say that it's unique across the board.

How do you process that especially when you're a kid growing up in Bloomington-Normal?

As a kid, I think that my parents would talk about race and what it's like being a Black man. My dad would talk to me about being a Black man in the city, being a Black man growing up. And I think that as my parents … they were trying to do the best they could to be able to guide us and prepare us, like, “Hey, racism is real. People are not going to like you based off your race.” That is a reality. Not everyone will. It will not be one of those things where you know, you will have a lot of people who are going to be rude and disrespectful.

How do you approach how you live day to day, knowing this thing is out there? Does it change how you act … does it change what you want to do with your life or how you want to live day to day?

In some ways I wake up thinking I'm very aware of my … in Bloomington-Normal I'm very aware of me being a Black man, and what comes with that. Not only am I aware of being a Black male, I'm also aware of coming from … or having a multiracial family. Right? So those are components when we go out to eat … it's like a spectacle, you know, people are watching us, and it feels like people are watching us. It feels like, you know, we're … people are curious, sort of … what are we doing? Or who are we? What's their story? And I think that those types of things … they get tiresome.

As a psychologist, I feel like I've had a lot of language to be able to describe what's happening, which has helped … to understand this is that thing that people do … they're doing it right now … how do I respond to it? I could get angry about it. But I realized that most of the time, that's not going to be helpful. So being able to lean in with a little bit more empathy, being able to have a little bit more patience. In some ways, I feel like it kind of gets me through the day (laughs heartily) of understanding that some people are ignorant. Some people are racist, some people have problems and they're not even aware of their behavior that is contributing to other people feeling different … or “othered,” or separate. And so I think that having that heightened awareness is something that a lot of Black people live with, especially in this area.

I want to ask you … in your expertise as a psychologist … I hear things like “when I grew up in Bloomington-Normal, I felt like I have a target on my back.” I talked to someone a couple of weeks ago who said a friend of his … a younger male … will spend up to an hour every morning or some mornings deciding what to wear. Not because he wants to impress somebody, but because he wants to not be seen as threatening.

Mm hmm.

That just killed me. Six years ago, I talked to an ISU English professor who grew up in Decatur who said even as a preteen, he felt he was being stalked constantly by police. These are all related to something that you're talking about. It's “always there.” What is the effect that has on someone to have that … “always there?”

Well, I think that the effect of any person that feels like they're always being critiqued … always feeling like they have to walk through life on eggshells … you know, it's kind of like the tyranny of the touchy right? Where you always feel like you have to walk on eggshells, because you know that people perceive you as a threat. And they perceive you as somebody who is just not a kid or not just like a human being, they see you as “other.” And I think when you have that on a consistent basis, as a human being that is traumatic Then when you have that confirmed through racial behavior … where people are doing something that is racially charged behavior, or they have some sort of prejudice that comes out in the way that they speak to you … they're upset with you, the way that they speak to you, calling you names … that continues to reaffirm that, man, you are not valued the same, you were not treated the same.

And so, as a psychologist, I think that greatly affects a human being … and their experience of just being human and living in the world. And I think that that's something that people really need to understand … that that's not something that's just made up. You could take many, many Black people in this community and across the United States, and I think that they would have similar experiences of what that feels like. And I would look at that and describe that through the lens of trauma. That's what generational and racial trauma looks like.

So how do you deal with that?

I think that personally, one of the things that I've always tried to do is … I believe that racial trauma is something that I'm passionate about talking about. I'm passionate about talking about racial reconciliation and multicultural competence, because I think that that's important. So, one of the ways that I try to deal with it is … you know, I went to therapy … I try to lean hard into my Christian community, right, or different communities of faith … being able to link arms with other people. Because I think that that's important to be able to have some sort of sense of self in some sort of communal aspect. So, some of the instances that have helped me heal are really having conversations with people regarding race. Having people in my life who are from different ethnic backgrounds that … they might have been white. I think a lot of the people that I'm talking about were white that were helpful. I think about a counselor that I had at Bloomington High School who is amazing … as far as helping me to understand myself … helping me understand the dreams that I had and being able to champion that. Pastors, people that I went to church with … and helped me … listened to me in that community.

And then I would say a huge healing thing for me was being involved in sports. Sports has been something that I feel like throughout the lifespan has been really helpful as bridging that gap where different people are coming together to work towards a common goal. And I think that that exposure is something that is critical … and has been critical in my life as far as like working through difficult moments or difficult experiences. That's not to say that all of those experiences that I just named also come with their own set of ruptures, but we've been able to repair it along the way, but I feel like being in those things types of environments for me, has been restorative in some way.

How does that help?

I think that some of the white people that I've been in relationships with over the years … they've been very curious … and not in a way that is like voyeuristic … but curious as in, “what is your experience like?” And being able to have those really upfront, very clear conversations … where they are listening not to respond, but they're listening to seek understanding … is restorative in and of itself. So, I think that you know, white people out there … instead of coming to judgment of “oh, this is how it is,” but actually sitting with people, individually, and on a community level of understanding like, “this is the pain. This is what we have experienced throughout our lifespan, as individuals and also as a community.” Doing that and listening and hearing those stories and being able to participate and join an ally ship … those are those emotionally corrective experiences that I was speaking about. That I feel like have been helpful. And I've seen a number of people do that and lean into those types of conversations.

Let's talk about solutions. There are a number of organized groups in town, Not In Our Town, Not In Our School, Black Lives Matter and NAACP, The Next Gen Initiative … all pushing for change, and let's talk about law enforcement in that respect. All of them with the exception I think of Black Lives Matter believe that police need to be part of the solution. And it sounds like you feel the same way.

I do. And I think that this is a part of my background of being a psychologist, but also a person. I'm still in the Army after 18 years. I was on active duty. And now I'm in the reserves. And I've been … total time has been 18 years. And so I hold a lot of different identities. And I think that some of those identities have helped me over the years to say, “look, like … I can work with a lot of different people in order to try to bring about change, even if I don't agree with some of their policies … some of the thoughts.” But I think that staying in an engaged relationship with people is important. And so when I think about that on an individual level, and when I think that on a community change level, I understand that I have to work with other people who we might not see eye-to-eye, but as long as we are continually in relationship with one another, and that we're continuing to press forward, I think that that's important.

I understand and respect other people's opinions and organizations, whether it be BLM, NAACP, which all of these I think are great organizations. And I think making sure that we are working together to bring about change and trusting that … they’re wanting the same change that I want. And I think that there are people in the police department who want the same change that I want as well. I don't think that that's a consensus. But I think that there are a lot of people in those departments that want to see change. I think going about it in those institutions is a little bit harder. But it also takes a different type of a skill set. And I just feel based off of my backgrounds, I have a different type of skill set that kind of matches that. 

You say there is some buy-in in the Bloomington Police Department that do want to change. But there seems to be this either-or mentality among some people. It's either blue lives matter or Black Lives Matter. That you can't have both.

Well, let me let me start by saying I think that … Black … Lives … Matter. Period. Pause. I think that when we are yelling, “Black Lives Matter,” it is not to say that all lives don't matter. But in order for all lives to matter, Black lives have to matter. I think historically, we have lived in a context where Black lives in this country and even globally have been marginalized … continually. Now, when we think about cancer, we have all different types of cancer awareness. We have breast cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer, whatever it is, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, people are all about breast cancer and they talk about it. And we've set aside a time to talk about breast cancer awareness. Now, if I was giving a speech, and I was talking about solely breast cancer and the importance of breast cancer, and then all of a sudden somebody stood up and said, “hey, you know what, all cancer matters.” You would look at that person like that’s ridiculous Of course … of course I think that all cancer matters. But we're setting aside a time right now, specifically to address breast cancer … raise money and funding and research for breast cancer.

If you think about that … in the historical context … that's what we're doing right now with Black Lives Matter. We’re saying, “yeah, absolutely all lives matter. But historically, Black lives have not mattered to a lot of people in our cultural context, so we are setting aside a time in history to specifically say, ‘Black Lives Matter.’” And we also absolutely agree that all lives matter. But in order for all lives to matter, Black lives have to matter. And that's why we're setting aside this time to be able to address that. And I think that overall … even with like blue lives matter, it's like, look the dichotomous thinking is like, I can work with a police officer, and absolutely look at them and say their life matters as a human being. And I think that that's important. And I also can say, as a person who believes that Black Lives Matter, I think that that's important for us to be able to address and talk about these issues. Right now.

Why do you think some people have so much trouble saying, “Black Lives Matter?”

I think that some people have a problem saying Black Lives Matter because they don't believe that Black Lives Matter. I think that's one part of it. I think that some people won't say Black Lives Matter because they think somehow that would negate the idea of all lives mattering, which once again, I think that that's ridiculous. I think that some people won't say Black Lives Matter because they are hung up on the idea of, “I want to support Black lives because I think that they matter but I don't want to support the Black Lives Matter movement.” I think that there's a lot of conflicting things inside as to why people won't say “Black Lives Matter,” but I would say that it's important if you can't say “Black Lives Matter,” period, pause, I think I would say that that's something that you really need to examine. Like, do you actually fundamentally believe that a Black life matters? And why? Or why not? And if you believe so … if you believe that a Black life matters, then what are you doing in order to make that reality or that belief that you have, penetrate and be pervasive throughout society? Whether it be in your home, whether it be in your organization … whether it be in your team … whatever it may be, what are you doing in order to demonstrate that with your life … in your lived experience of being a human being in your current context?

You talk about how you deal with organizations, corporations, even police departments. Let's talk about the national conversation that we’re seemingly trying to have … at least some people are trying to have … how would you frame the conversation?

What I would say is that the conversation has always been there. We're having it … it's on a national level. For some people, this is new. (chuckles) This isn't a new conversation. But I think for a lot of Black people, it's like this is not new, I think … what was it Will Smith that said, “You know, racism is not new, it is just being filmed now”? And people are seeing how people are treated across the globe on a daily basis … like this is a real thing. And I think that all of the instances that we're watching … whether it be with Christian Cooper, who was literally bird watching in Central Park. Out of all the things … whether it be George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Aubrey … the Christian Cooper incident which I know didn't result in death … to me that depiction I have of this woman like, you know, reaching into her cultural bag of conjuring up this notion of this threatening Black man is so sickening. It's disgusting. It's disturbing.

I think that that instance is something that happens on a more regular basis in different settings than people realize. And I think that that type of pervasiveness in our culture is so disheartening. So, the way that we attack it is by having national leaders have this as a continual emphasis on change and cultural change and cultural interactions and multicultural competence. And I think it starts at the top, whether it be within the media, whether it be with our national leaders, whether it be with our military leaders … which I think that there's been some great examples of military leadership who have actually addressed this head on. One of the people I'm thinking about is the Air Force. I guess it would be the former Air Force Academy superintendent … but there have been a number of different leaders that I think having them have a voice in this and weighing in and making this something that's not just going to go away. White evangelical churches … you know, a variety of different people who were having these types of conversations. But I would say that this can't be something that's just performative justice, where it's like one time and one time only. This is something that is a daily lived experience of you trying to figure out ways to be able to co-create change throughout the lifespan … for ourselves and for our children and our children's children for generations to come. Because I think that that's what needs to happen.

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